June 6, 2000Old Kosovo leader builds new ones
PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (AP) -- In the search for leaders with enough stature and experience to guide Kosovo into an uncertain future, Kosovo Albanians are turning to an old guard former communist who once ran the province for Belgrade.
Mahmut Bakalli used to run the place as head of the Kosovo wing of the communist party until he was fired in 1981 for allegedly failing to prevent Albanian student riots.
The 63-year-old Bakalli says he's too old to run for public office or challenge the younger generation of would-be leaders, many of whom began their careers in the student movement which cost Bakalli his job.
However, political insiders here are turning to Bakalli for his advice and his insights into Balkan politics. He is re-emerging as a player in the political scene and taking on the role of elder statesman in a society which honors men who have managed to stick it out over time.
That makes him important in Kosovo, where several people claim the mantle of ethnic Albanian leadership and where no one has clearly emerged to take on that role.
"We don't have a charismatic leader in Kosovo," Bakalli said, chuckling over the understatement. "But it doesn't mean they aren't good leaders."
The search for leaders is critical in this southern province of Yugoslavia that is only barely coming to grips with democratic development, recently emerging from a decade of oppression under Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic after the fall of communism.
The furtive steps toward democracy are that much more critical for Kosovo now, as it enters preparatory stages for local elections in the fall. Western leaders hope the race for municipal offices will start the process of having someone emerge whom the province's ethnic Albanians --and perhaps its Serbs -- will actually follow.
In a study clogged with a stuffed Albanian eagle, a 5-foot brown bear and a dozen other mounted animal heads, Bakalli, whose twin passions are politics and hunting, leans forward, taps his long cigarette holder against an ashtray and offers predictions for the tangled world of Kosovo politics.
"My vision is that the Serbs and the Albanians will live together," he told The Associated Press. "But the Serbs have to change something in their heads -- that they are citizens of Pristina, not of Belgrade. They haven't grasped that yet."
Even among his critics, Bakalli wins esteem in some respects for being the last strongman that people remember as actually being strong, the man who refused to back down to Yugoslavia's leaders who fired him because he wouldn't let army tanks roll onto Pristina's streets during the 1981 unrest.
He was part of the Kosovo Albanian delegation to the failed Rambouillet peace talks last year and talked about the necessity for international mediation before the negotiation process even started. When the talks in France failed, he talked of the importance behind NATO's coming to Kosovo, long before the bombings even began.
"We respect this man," said Baton Haxhiu, chief editor of the province's most prestigious newspaper, Koha Ditore.
Kosovo's active leaders, meanwhile, haven't exactly galvanized the population.
Ibrahim Rugova led a campaign of passive resistance against Milosevic and emerged as Kosovo's most popular leader according to a Gallup poll in February. But since NATO troops and U.N. officials took over Kosovo last year, he has shunned the spotlight and avoided the risk of making unpopular political positions.
By contrast, Hashim Thaci, the former political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, emerged from the war as a hero but saw his support erode because of his association with the ineffectual and often hapless U.N. mission, some analysts say.
And now there is a third factor: Ramush Haradinaj, a former KLA commander whose profile has risen of late, particularly after a beating he received in a scuffle with NATO peacekeepers won him sympathy among ethnic Albanians.
Bakalli said he's helped Haradinaj with the nuts and bolts of organizing a political party, mostly because he believed people in Kosovo needed a third choice. Bakalli's influence on Haradinaj is clear in the 31-year-old leader's pronouncements about the need for peaceful coexistence between Kosovo's Serbs and ethnic Albanians.
Still, Bakalli the politician knows he himself wouldn't have much of a chance of winning any election contest, tainted as he is by his communist past. He sees himself as more of a link between Kosovo's past and its dreams of an independent future.
"We need to make a movement of people for tolerance between ethnic groups in general and to one another, between people and political parties -- every time we speak," he said. "If we don't do that, I'm afraid ... we will lose our individual chance for prosperity."